I am quite sure I will never forget Election Night 2016. We were in a room full of a thousand Culinary Workers Union members and activists in Vegas, ready to celebrate the election of the first woman president in the United States. The night ended in catastrophic disappointment. My wife and I then made the long drive back to Los Angeles with a carload of Clinton volunteers as Trump’s victory became official. We were in disbelief. And in tears.
Our country—our neighbors—had elected a sexual predator whose campaign to the White House was based on the racist demonization of hardworking immigrants. As the months painfully went by and his policies began to hurt more and more people, I alternated between anger and disbelief.
Anger that Trump had welcomed Russian interference into our election and was not held accountable
Anger at his defense of racists and Nazis
Anger that he pushed tax breaks that will let his family save almost a billion dollars while it’s harder to get or stay in the middle class for the rest of us
Anger that while the planet burns, Trump’s golfing at his resort has already cost taxpayers over $133,000,000 while he fools his supporters by constantly bragging that he’s forsaking his $400,000 presidential salary
Frustration at Democrats in the 2016 election—and the media—who kept focusing on health care but stayed virtually silent regarding how Republicans have crippled majority-rules democracy and the people’s power of voting
Anger that Trump was assassinating leaders in other countries to invite a war against Iran simply to distract us from his own impeachment
Fear that so many more people will die as Trump first denied the importance of COVID-19, then focused more on the blame game than actually fighting the virus
Outrage as Trump seemed to oppose the media, protestors, and Democratic Party leaders more than he opposed brutal dictators such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Russia’s Vladimir Putin
A lot of this is personal for me. I have spent my entire career working on issues of immigrants’ and union rights and improving public schools, and my wife has worked on health care, disability, and employment rights. My anger, though, isn’t just at Trump.
I am angry at Democrats for failing again. I realized that night in Las Vegas that Democratic leaders will not save us. They do not have a plan, at least one that will work against the Republican’s 4 Weapons Against Democracy detailed in chapter 4. It will be up to us—the cliched “we the people”—to save ourselves. Since that election, I have dedicated myself to understanding how Republicans could keep winning elections after embroiling us in two fruitless and horrific wars and the Great Recession in the 2000s, then doing nothing but obstruct Obama, vote to repeal Obamacare, and investigate Hillary Clinton’s emails in the 2010s.
How could Republicans have gone from forty senators to controlling the Senate and House for eight years? How could the Democrats have lost the White House running against Trump, the most unfit person to ever be a party nominee?
Republicans won the House elections in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 and the Senate elections (or at least gained seats) in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018. Were they really more popular than Democrats during this time?
This book is a result of my deep dive into understanding the answers to these questions. And the answers are even more disturbing than the prospect of Trump’s re-election in 2020. Things are far worse than our Democratic leaders are talking about publicly.
Before we go any further, let’s look at what happened in the 2010 decade. The rest of the book expands on some of these points at greater length. But I want you to get up to speed as fast as possible to understand just how unusual the Republicans’ reversal of fortune was after they got wiped out in 2008.
What Happened to Democracy in the 2010 Decade
In 2008, the United States felt like a democracy full of opportunities and freedoms. So many of us were fighting to expand those opportunities and freedoms for all. After eight years of President George W. Bush and recession and wars, our country demanded change. We elected Barack Obama as president. The coalition that elected him was growing demographically and was set to prevent the party of Bush and recessions from governing for a generation or more.
Fearing that outcome, Republican billionaire funders understood they needed to change state and national laws so that their party could stay in power even though a shrinking minority of Americans supported them. They used three weapons to attack free and fair elections: First, they financially supported lawsuits that led to a Republican-dominated Supreme Court changing how elections could be funded. Thus, beginning in 2010, giant corporations and billionaires started dumping unprecedented sums of money into state and national elections with no transparency. Republicans were able to massively outspend Democrats in key battleground elections, sometimes 20 to 1.
Because of this—not because of Obamacare, as I show below—the GOP swept into power in state and federal government in 2010 throughout the United States. Second, once the Citizens United decision enabled them to buy majorities in states where they only had minority support, they had to take further measures to keep those majorities. Accordingly, they changed election maps in 2011 by concentrating Democratic voters into fewer districts. This made it almost impossible for Democrats to win majorities in many states or in Congress as a whole. Third, once they had voter-proof majorities, they then began targeting Democratic Party supporters in Republican-controlled states by purging voter rolls and making it difficult for groups in the Obama coalition to both register to vote and cast a vote. Fourth, they used a sophisticated scheme to hide those three Weapons Against Democracy. They ran what amounts to a counterintelligence program aimed at keeping the media, the public, and even the Democratic Party focused on anything but the GOP’s 4 Weapons Against Democracy.
Because of those 4 Weapons Against Democracy, the Republicans maintained majorities in state and federal governments starting in 2010, despite having fewer voters supporting them than Democrats.
Because of those Republican majorities, bad things began happening. Our country went backward in many ways in the 2010s: It became harder to buy a home, harder to find a steady job, harder to pay for college. For most of the country, income, wealth, and life expectancy stagnated during this decade.
Politically, President Obama’s agenda was stalled for the last six years of his presidency. Republicans then constantly criticized him for being slow to clean up the wars and recession he inherited from Bush. He accomplished almost nothing that was on the wish list of Democrats or progressives, despite being re-elected with massive support from the electorate. Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was even able to stop him from appointing federal judges, including to the Supreme Court during his second term.
Meanwhile, Republican candidate Donald Trump was able to solicit Russian help with his own election to succeed Obama, and later—with Republicans safely in the majority—get away with it. White supremacist movements began growing again. Mass slaughter due to gun violence continued unabated in our schools and communities, yet Congress did not pass a single piece of gun-control legislation. Tax breaks were targeted to help super-rich Americans—the vast majority of whom are Republicans or Republican donors—gain more of the nation’s wealth than at any time in history. And no progress was made on major social and economic issues such as global climate change, racism, immigration, health care, homelessness, or so many others.
Then came COVID-19. The incompetence and corruption of Republicans unnecessarily cost America 150,000 lives in its first five months. Add in ongoing deaths of Black Americans at the hands of the police and Trump’s repression of peaceful protestors, and now, at the dawn of the 2020s, people are pissed. And awake.
On the political right and on the left, it’s clear to all that we have a dysfunctional government. Our investments in critical infrastructure, such as education, science, and even bridges, have decreased. Storms and fires rage out of control due to climate change, and our government does nothing. There’s more intolerance and attacks on “the other.” Our country is in decline both domestically and internationally. Our response to the pandemic of COVID-19 has been piecemeal at best and months too late. Trump has accelerated the decline of America so quickly that his red hats saying “Make America Great Again” are best read as mocking irony.
This decline is a direct result of the power shift away from Democrats in 2008. People forget, though, just how huge that power shift was.
Think back to 2008. That election was bigger than one Democratic president. President Obama won the Electoral College 365–173 and won the popular vote by 9.5 million votes. Democrats held a supermajority in the Senate (60–40 advantage), a significant House of Representatives majority, and twice as many blue-governed states than red.
Reread that paragraph. It’s vital to understand how big the Democratic majority was in order to understand what happened in 2010 that reversed all of that. It’s also important because if the Democrats win big in 2020, they will likely fall into the same trap of a lazy triumphalism. They imagine that they will stay in power for the foreseeable future and forget the lesson of 2010.
It seemed that after 2008, we—just like the abolitionists of the late nineteenth believed—would see the arc of history bending toward justice. It hasn’t. This is because justice is only present in a democracy. Since 2008 there has been a sustained attack on American democracy that very few people seem to understand and upon which almost no elected Democrat stays publicly focused.
In 2008 it was clear that the Democrats were secure in their role as our country’s governing party. They believed it would be lasting like President Franklin Roosevelt’s majorities seventy years earlier. Political experts were looking at the demographic changes ahead and noting that the Democratic Party’s advantage would continue to grow steadily.
But instead, Republicans clawed back starting in 2010.
[Figure 3: Democratic Losses]
In 2008 the Democrats held more than 4,000 state legislative seats, while the Republicans held 3,200. In sixteen states Democrats held the governor’s mansion and both state houses, while Republicans held only nine trifectas. After the Republicans unleashed Weapon #2—the gerrymandering of 2011—Democrats lost almost 1,000 state legislative seats (on top of seats lost in 2010). By 2017, Republicans had twenty-six trifectas and Democrats only six—a swing of twenty-five state trifectas in seven years. Yet during this same time Obama was re-elected and Hillary Clinton received three million more votes than Trump—beating him by more than 2%. In this same period, the Republicans had not a single legislative accomplishment other than shutting down the government, thanks to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
The “enduring majority” of the Democrats only lasted for two years. Why? Was it that Obama’s policies turned out to be unpopular? He was re-elected in 2012 against his well-funded and highly respected opponent Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The false narrative that voters rejected Democrats for Obamacare or because Democrats overreached is easily dispelled by looking at the polling on the congressional generic ballots just months before those elections in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.
[Figure 4: Congressional Ballots]
Despite the polling showing that the Democrats were well positioned to win those elections, they ended up losing all of those elections. The polling shows there was not a sustained upwelling of anti-Democratic-Party sentiment throughout these years. In fact, it shows the opposite. On the whole, the majority of Americans wanted Democrats to govern from 2008 to 2020. Yet the Democrats lost seats or their majority, or remained in the minority in both the Senate (2012–2020) and House (2011–2018) in those elections and lost the White House in 2016. The tide against the Democrats only turned in the last few months of each election.
Why is that? This tide turned because of Weapon #1 the GOP used in this past decade to significantly damage Americans’ ability to choose who governs them: unlimited dark money.
In most of these elections, the cumulative votes for Democrats exceeded those for the Republican candidates, but the Republicans still won a majority of seats. So how is it that Republicans have won ten of the last twelve federal elections after Obama’s tidal wave in 2008 despite not having a majority of voters supporting them? Let’s follow the money.
The richest of the Republican donors were able to eliminate campaign contribution limits in 2010 so that they could literally now spend hundreds of millions—instead of a few thousand—in support of their political goals. By enabling that surprise attack of secret money in November 2010, Republicans won key districts that they otherwise would not have won.
Then Republicans targeted just enough legislative and congressional districts to flip key states from Democrat-controlled to Republican-controlled and gain veto-proof majorities in Republican states. Knowing that their victories would have been short-lived, Republicans continued to build their firewall against the popular will. Through an extraordinary campaign of gerrymandering and voter suppression in a handful of these states, they maintained control of Congress and various state legislatures even when Democrats received more votes.
In this chaos of an undemocratic Congress, Russia was able to step in to help throw the 2016 election to Trump. After Trump seized power, he blocked any repercussions for Russia’s hack of our democracy. He then sought continued help from Putin, his oligarchs, and even the new Ukrainian president—for which Democrats finally impeached Trump.
But you know all this, right?
What you don’t know is what happens next.
Will Trump be re-elected in November 2020?
Or will there be such a massive rejection of Trump and his allies in Congress that Democrats win the White House and the Senate?
Most importantly, if there is a massive rejection of the Trump party, will the new Democratic trifecta in the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives focus on fixing our democracy, or will they simply chase the most popular issues of the moment according to their polling or corporate media?
The actual existential crisis facing our democracy is whether or not we will continue to have free and fair elections where the majority decides who governs them.
Unlike other seminal political books of the Trump era, my focus is on that third question. Because, even though this seems counterintuitive, the current crisis is not just about Trump. In fact, he is our best opportunity.